The recent crash of a Boeing 737 jetliner in Washington, D.C., in which 78 people died, raises the perennial question of why people feel compelled to travel so much. Domestically, Americans travel more than a trillion miles every year by air, rail, car, and bus, at a cost of $250 billion. Automobile deaths alone claim more than 50,000 lives annually in the U.S., nearly as many Americans as died in Vietnam. With the cost and risk of traveling so high, one may well ask the prospective traveler, “Is this trip really necessary?”
“Yes,” is the usual reply. Business demands it, or ties of family affection and friendship demand it, or our tastes for vacationing and sightseeing demand it.
But think about it: Wouldn’t we be a lot happier if all our needs could be satisfied at home? The political philosopher and moralist Canakya once said, “A happy man is he who is not in debt and who does not have to leave home.” Canakya, who lived in the fourth century B.C., would certainly have had no trouble understanding the unhappiness of our modern commuter, battling heavy traffic daily as he travels in and out of a big city, struggling to make enough money to pay off the mortgage.
Srila Prabhupada, seeing the plight of the modern commuters and travelers, was compassionate and criticized the deadening treadmill of their frantic lives: “People rush about in cars going seventy and eighty miles an hour [this was written before OPEC], constantly coming and going, and this sets the scene for the great struggle for existence. One has to rise early in the morning and travel in a car at breakneck speed. There is always the danger of an accident, and one has to take great care. In his automobile, the living entity is full of anxieties, and his struggle is not at all auspicious.”
The salesman travels. But what is the ultimate benefit of his traveling? Money. As Wordsworth said, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers. Little we have in nature that is ours.” Certainly making money has its place, but if in making money a person forgets the purpose of his life, that is the greatest tragedy.
Hopping the globe in search of the perfect vacation is also a vain dream. Airline posters in New York City show a young man and a beautiful woman in swimsuits enjoying a special moment in the sun on a Florida beach. In Florida, the ads show a model couple enjoying the sights, restaurants, and night life of Manhattan. But in reality, the trip from Florida to New York or New York to Florida is dangerous, expensive, troublesome, and ultimately disappointing.
Yet, on we travel—down the road, through the air, under the earth, across the sea, and into outer space, racing toward the mirage of adventure, happiness, and economic opportunity.
Amid all the hustle and bustle, it is rare indeed to find a person thoughtful enough to inquire into the ultimate purpose of life. Everyone is too busy making travel arrangements. A chance moment of introspection is sure to be shattered by the advertisers’ shouts that Budget Rent-a-Car will fly you above the congested airport crowds in no time at all and hand you the keys to a painlessly inexpensive automobile. Meanwhile, the hotel advertisers are advising you where to go to eat and sleep like a prince, and the entertainment advertisers are promising you something wonderful to see and hear, until finally you are spent—of money and energy and patience—and forced to catch another ride to the next place.
For one who can gather his thoughts enough to ask why he is being forced to go from place to place, the Vedic literature offers valuable insight, and ultimate relief.
First, the Vedic literature informs us that our forced travels do not actually end with the end of the body. Within the body is the soul—the actual person—who has to travel from body to body, life after life. Human travel in this lifetime is symbolic of the travel of the soul as he transmigrates from one body to another. And the advertisements that allure the traveler are representative of all the illusions of the material nature that induce us to develop various material desires. At the end of life, our accumulated material desires lead us to our next body, where we can try again to fulfill them while we receive the punishments and rewards of our previous karma, or selfish actions.
Sometimes, when a person’s karma is not good, his next body is inferior to his present one. A poor person cannot afford to fly from New York to Orlando’s Disney World but has to settle for the pleasures of a local park. Similarly, if a person sins and thus incurs bad karma, he may get the body of an animal and be forced to evolve from one species to another, life after life.
But even the best karma or the best birth does not free a person from the miserable trials of mortal life. Regardless of karma, everyone has to die, whether sitting in the first-class section of a 737 or standing in a crowded, last-class bus. And at death, the soul sojourns to his next body, whether human, animal, or plant, to continue his traveling and suffering in the material world.
The sufferings of the wanderer end when he realizes that his real nature is not to struggle in this world but to enjoy his eternal relationship with Krsna in the spiritual world. In other words, the traveler becomes happy when he reaches his ultimate destination—the kingdom of God.
The Vedic literature explains that although the living entity may travel all over the universe, birth after birth, he will never find rest, never find his permanent home. So he should stop looking for happiness in the material realm. Having through great good fortune come to the human form of life, he should break free from the control of illusion and travel back home, back to Godhead, where he will find eternal happiness. This, truly, is the only trip that is really necessary.—SDG